In ballet, exercises at the barre represent the foundation of dance training and the beginning of every dancing day. It’s a ritual that many dancers have continued at home as they’ve been cut adrift by Covid, something to hang on to (literally) from their old life and routine. The ubiquitous piece of studio furniture is rarely seen on stage, but it is the inspiration for William Forsythe’s latest creation, The Barre Project, five short episodes made remotely with New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck and dancers Lex Ishimoto, Brooklyn Mack and Roman Mejia, filmed on the empty stage of a California theatre.
It is Forsythe’s second foray into using the music of electronic artist James Blake (after Blake Works I, for the Paris Opera Ballet), and the glitched beats, rumbly bass and vulnerable vocals are beautiful in their sparseness. It’s one thing to layer on sounds, the real genius is in taking them away. Same goes for dance steps, when you’re a good enough choreographer not to have to obfuscate. And Forsythe certainly is. There are plenty of steps here, the dancers moving at great speed, but it sings with clarity.
Tiler Peck – who broadcast daily ballet classes during lockdown using her parents’ kitchen counter as a makeshift barre – leads the quartet. She’s sharp, she’s slinky and she’s got attitude, like the casual swipe of a leg that whips her body round with invisible momentum. There’s absolute control and precision on display at every second, in rond de jambe, frappé and petit battement, everything taking place at the barre or within a few metres of it. There’s exciting speed but also restraint – it’s never bombastic. The men do buoyant beats with ease and swift, tight turns. Nothing spills over the edges, but there’s rubato within the strict pulse, fleshing out a move like a pitchbend on a synthesiser. Peck can be machine-like, then suddenly sink into her hip and smile with subtle showgirl flair.
Despite being danced for film, there’s a knowing sense of performance, eyes meeting the camera lens, and visible pleasure on the dancers’ faces. Forsythe is a pivotal artist in 20th- and now 21st-century dance and his work has been through many incarnations, but this current one seems to be driven by joy (Peck and Mack even throw in some salsa style at one stage).
The first section, Buzzard and Kestrel, was previewed as part of a Sadler’s Wells’ online gala in December; its energetic agitation is contrasted by the haunting Lullaby for My Insomniac, which sees Peck managing to embody the bleak ache of the music without recourse to drama. One film is only a closeup of hands on the barre, a precursor to a moving coda later. In between the tracks is footage of the creation process, Forsythe dancing in his kitchen in Frankfurt. He talks about living with pieces of music for maybe five years before he brings dancers into the picture. “What you’re basically demonstrating is how you listen,” he says. We see Forsythe Zooming in from Vermont, while Peck is in one studio in New York, Ishimoto in another on a different coast. People always say that constraints make you more creative. That’s a cliche, but it’s no doubt been true this last year. Yet here, what the constraints really give is better focus, to the choreography and also to the experience of the viewer. The whole thing is only half an hour long, but it’s 30 minutes of perfection.